Monday, November 08, 2004

Strange Spirituality

Luke 3:7-14
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, November 7, 2004]

A friend shared a joke with me recently.

An atheist was walking through a woods one day, thinking how beautiful it was and how amazing that it had all come together through a series of cosmic accidents. Walking by a river, he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to see a seven-foot grizzly charging toward him.

He ran away as fast as his legs could carry him, but the bear kept gaining on him. After running awhile, the man tripped, fell to the ground, and rolled over to see the grizzly standing over him, reaching for him with his left paw and raising his right paw to strike.

At that instant, the man cried out, “Oh my God!” Time stopped. The bear froze. The forest went silent. Even the river stopped flowing. As a bright light shone upon the man, a voice from the sky said, “You deny My existence all these years; teach others that I don’t exist; and even say that the universe is an accident. Do you expect Me to help you out of this predicament? Am I supposed to count you as a believer now?”

The atheist looked up into the light and said a bit sheepishly, “It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask You to treat me as a believer now. But, could You make the bear a Christian?” “Okay,” the voice said.

The light went out. The river ran again. And the sounds of the forest resumed. Then the bear dropped his right paw...brought both paws together...bowed his head and spoke: “Lord, for this food which I am about to receive, I am truly thankful!”

The point is this: When the blessings of God come our way, our first response should be gratitude.

Sometimes though, we think that we’re too tapped out or too busy to thank God for His blessings. But how we live our lives, even in their most mundane and practical places, indicates not only the depths of our gratitude to God, but also whether God and we really have relationships or not.

Just before Jesus began His public ministry, His relative, John the Baptist, also had a public ministry. John’s whole mission boiled down to this: getting the world ready to receive Jesus as Lord, Savior, and God-in-the-flesh. John said that the way to receive Jesus was to repent. That means to turn away from sin and to live for God.

John’s ministry was successful, if you measure success by numbers. Droves of people went out to the Jordan River to repent and, as a symbol of their becoming clean on the inside, stood in the water and got cleaned on the outside. But John, to put it mildly, was skeptical about the motives, attitudes, and beliefs of all these people.

He barked at them and in the Daniels paraphrase of our Bible lesson, said:

“You snakes! You come out here wearing your pious religious masks, thinking that you’ll trick God into believing that you really want to turn from sin and walk with Him. But if you’re genuine and God’s new life has been planted inside of you, it’ll show on the outside of you, in the ways you live each day!

“And don’t get huffy with me and say, ‘What are you talking about, John? Our daddies, granddaddies, and great-granddaddies were all good Jews [or good Lutherans, or good Catholics, or good Baptists]. Our religion is in our blood!’ God could make good Jews [or good Lutherans, or good Catholics, or good Baptists] out of these rocks if He wanted to. [He could even make a good Christian out of a bear, if He had a mind to.]

“So, get ready. God is going to destroy all the hypocrites who claim to be repentant, but aren’t anything more than unrepentant sinners parading around in their Sunday best.”
You can imagine the reactions that John’s words evoked. No doubt some stormed back to Jerusalem, offended. There were probably nervous titters and sandaled feet shuffling on the Judean rock and sand. Eventually, some shouted or approached him discretely with questions.

The crowds ask, “John, if showing up here doesn’t prove anything, what are we supposed to do?” Keep in mind that this is a spiritual question. But John doesn’t tell them to pray, or go to a Bible study, or spend hours contemplating some religious symbol.

John says, “Share.” “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none,” he says. “And whoever has food must do likewise.”

The senior pastor of a congregation near Dayton has led many of the families there to adopt impoverished families in their area. The pastor’s family, which includes his wife, his children, and him, were connected with a family that also included two kids. At back-to-school time one year, his kids had their lists of needed school supplies as well as new clothes they wanted. But because the family goal was to provide their adoptive family with the same supplies and clothing that they provided for the pastor’s kids, the lists were pared down a bit. That pastor and his family tried at every turn to take John’s words to heart. Grateful for the forgiveness and love that God gives through Jesus, they tried to share.

Let me be honest with you. I wrestle with this whole business of sharing. I worry that if I share too much, there’ll be less for me. But then, I run across things like the letter we recently received from the mother of Sinanzinkosi Moyo. Sinanzinkosi, you know, is the little girl our congregation sponsors through World Vision in Zimbabwe. She lives in a tiny village there. Her mother’s note told a little about Sinanzinkosi. Then she wrote this about their everyday life:

“It had been much cold this winter. I usually warm ourselves with fire and warm clothes. Do you make fire? If you don’t, what do you use to warm yourselves?”
As I read that, I wondered how I could explain gas and electric heat, or air conditioning, or heat pumps, or that we usually only light fires when we want to cook steaks on a grill or create a Christmasy feeling in our fireplace. How could I explain that we don’t have to start a fire to cook our meals? Or, that if at a restaurant she would consider palatial, I’m told that it will be an hour before I get my table, I become impatient?

If the God we know through Jesus Christ has come to live inside of us, our spirituality will include a commitment to sharing.

It will also include financial integrity. Our Bible lesson says that “even tax collectors” were among those being baptized by John. Tax collectors in those times were, of course, dishonest businesspeople who practiced legalized extortion. Some of them who’d come to be baptized asked John, “How shall we live in a way that makes God the King of our inside as well as our outside?” John tells them that they shouldn’t collect more than their due. In other words, don’t steal even in the subtlest of ways. To some soldiers, John gave similar advice.

Now, let’s cut to the chase. All these people asked John a spiritual question: How do we live with God as the King of our lives? John answered by talking about money and possessions. This is a strange spirituality, isn’t it? No, I don’t think that it is.

Imagine that you’re drowning in a raging sea. The only thing standing between you and death is a slender two-by-four to which you’re desperately clinging. Then, along comes a helicopter. From it, a man is lowered at the end of a tether. He hold s out his hand to save you.

Now, folks, at this point, you aren’t going to do a cost-benefit analysis. You’re not going to ask whether this conforms to your personal goals for the year. You’re not going to worry about the risk or the effort. You’re going to let go of the lumber and grab for your rescuer’s hand!

Back in Old Testament times, God gave His Ten Commandments. The first one is the most important, summarizing all the rest. “You shall have no other gods before Me,” God says. Only God can save us from sin and death and futile living. Through Jesus, God has extended the hand of rescue to all of us. That’s why Jesus says, “I am the way...”

When we let anything other than God be our highest priority, it’s like clutching a piece of wood on a stormy ocean. Eventually, its power to save us will give out and only the outstretched hand of God can save us.

That’s why John the Baptist responded to those questions about spirituality with answers about money and possessions. He knew that the gods you and I are most likely to worship (by making them the most important things in our lives) are cash and stuff. To genuinely follow God, we need to be willing to let of our dependence on them and grab hold of God!

You know that we’re beginning our Fall stewardship campaign at Friendship Church, asking our members and regular participants to prayerfully consider how they will devote their time, talent, and financial resources to the mission and work of Friendship Church. There is so much we need and want to do at Friendship...

support missionaries in far-off lands;

conduct mission trips close to home and in impoverished countries;

print brochures to invite people to get to know God through Friendship;

send mass mailings to people in the area, telling them the Good News of Jesus and that Friendship is a place all people are welcome to get to know God;

have a new contemporary worship celebration on Saturdays;

actually pay our musical accompanists, music director, and youth director;

hold community outreach events;

provide dinners and warm welcomes to area residents who might not otherwise get good meals;

and so much more!

One of my favorite movies is The Right Stuff, the story of the Mercury space program. Among the most memorable lines, attributed to astronaut Gus Grissom, is, “No bucks; no Buck Rogers.” Financial resources were essential to the mission of space exploration.

In just the same way, we at Friendship cannot do all the good we want and need to do until we have the financial resources they require. It’s one thing to step out in faith; it’s another to put God to the test. To even attempt to do much of the ministry God is calling us to do at Friendship without devoting increased measures of our time, talent, and treasures would be putting God to the test.

Fortunately, the whole short history of Friendship is a clear demonstration of the fact that when we entrust ourselves to God and do what He calls us to do, He makes great things happen!

So, our stewardship campaign is in part, about supporting the future of our congregation with our time, talent, and money.

It’s also about being empowered to change the life of our community and world by sharing Jesus through our congregation.

Even more importantly, it’s about all of us making the decision that we will have power over our money and our possessions, rather than letting them call the shots in our lives.

This stewardship campaign is about all of us using God’s gifts to respond to God’s blessings with gratitude, with a commitment to sharing, and with integrity.

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